Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.
These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!
The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!
Whenever something bad has happened in the early years section of any of the schools I have worked in, I have always thought about this clip. Those unfortunate soldiers at the frontline of war who sacrificed themselves to protect the others, further back, further from the danger.
This is a comparison I have been making, mentally, for many years… probably since my wife became an early years teacher in a fee-paying international school. You see, what we have to realise and remember about early years teachers is that:
- they are the most at risk of scrutiny by parents, sometimes being peered at through windows and even, in some cases, filmed while they try and do their job
- they are the most at risk of emotional, irrational and often inappropriate outbursts by parents
- they are the ones who have to immediately justify their practices to parents who understand little or nothing about a contemporary education
- they are the ones most underestimated by other teachers and people in leadership positions
- they are the ones who do a thousand invisible things every day only to be questioned about one of them
- they are the ones who deal with faeces, urine, vomit, snot, tears, physical violence and tantrums with unconditional love and patience
- they are the ones who are treated like subservients because it’s often the first year or two that parents have paid for the “service” of education
- they are the ones who have to counteract poor parenting decisions in their purest form
So, next time you see an early years teacher… give them a smile.
They’re at work again, making things just that little bit easier for teachers of every subsequent grade level. They’re at work again, because despite all of the harsh realities in my list above, they absolutely love their jobs and wholeheartedly believe in what they do.
A parent recently asked me if I felt her children would struggle when returning to a more conservative model of education after several years in a PYP school… and an innovative PYP school at that.
She was mainly thinking about whether or not they would have fallen behind academically in the traditional subject areas as the system in her country, like in most of them, is very content-specific. I said that they may find there are things that they haven’t learned… of course! However, I told her, after several years in the PYP they will have the ability to access that information as they will be skilled in the “art of learning”. I reassured her that what they have learned, or haven’t learned, should not present them with insurmountable problems.
What they might struggle with, I said, is being expected to go backwards in terms of how they learn. Being put back into a traditional classroom set-up in which all students sit at tables all day, sometimes in rows. Being put back into a traditional teacher-student authority relationship. Being put back into situations where all students are doing the same thing, the same way at the same time. Being put back into didactic, predetermined contexts for learning. Being put back into a place where only a few forms of expression are valued. These are all things they might struggle with. These are all things that many children who leave PYP schools and go back to state systems struggle with.
The metaphor of a genie in a bottle sprung to mind as I was talking. We laughed about how the PYP has released the inner genie in her children, and children like them, and how it might be very difficult or even impossible to put the genie back into the bottle!
But, do we really want to?
Header image from here
One thing that bothers me about international schools is the fear of taking a strong stance on any sort of issues. We persistently flap about in the no-man’s land of opinion, belief and – most worryingly – ethics. We have wonderful mission statements, visions, learner profiles, principles, codes of conduct etc… ad infinitum… but we don’t take a stance on anything that really matters.
Imagine working at a school that explicitly took sides against one, a few or all of these things that exist outside and/or inside the walls of most of our schools:
- massive gaps between the rich and the poor
- environmental destruction
- waste and the production of rubbish
- maltreatment of refugees
Imagine a school that refused to accept the children of parents who were in the country for dubious or destructive purposes – industries that caused pollution of the destruction of the environment, for example. Or a school that refused to accept the children of powerful local “dignitaries” or owners of the construction companies that are turning many of the cities we work in into nightmarish visions of “progress”. Or a school that refused to accept the citizens of countries waging wars on foreign soil. Or a school that insisted on paying its local staff decent wages. Or a school that would not tolerate seeing people living in distressing circumstances within a certain radius of its premises. Or a school that gave disadvantaged local people scholarships or new career opportunities.
Or, basically, a school that does more good than harm… and is fiercely proud of that fact. Is that how we can make sure our schools are “human”?
We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.
My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.
Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.
These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.
It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.
Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!
I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:
“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”
“Why are the cows lying down?”
“Where does the water come from?”
“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”
“Who does this land belong to?”
“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”
“Where does that path go?”
“What is making that sound?”
“Who made that rope swing over the river?”
And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!
Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.
This video features my daughter, Zahra, and Linh Huyen, wife of my friend Richard and outstanding Vietnamese singer and performer.
Zahra has had dance lessons – ballet and jazz – but recently gave them up because she wasn’t enjoying them any more. However, she still loves to dance… as you can see!
I wonder how she can continue to develop this love for dancing without having to go to structured, formal lessons. Is it possible for her community to provide her with opportunities and situations like this one – where she is truly in the zone – but learning alongside a true performer and role-model.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that often the best learning happens in informal situations, when people who are driven by the same interests and passions come together, when it is not organized or planned in advance. In the absence of structure, magic happens.
Of course, there is still structure in what takes place in this video. Multiple structures – rhythm, pitch, choreography, language, communication and so on… the structure that is absent is premeditation, timetabling or even the foresight that things would work out this way. Structures like that may evolve out of this experience, Linh Huyen and Zahra already started making plans to do another performance, this time with rehearsals and costumes and a bigger audience.
When I think about some of the most powerful examples of learning that have happened in my school this year, I believe they share some of the same features. They emerged out of natural inclinations, genuine connections, meaningful interactions and spontaneous decisions. They went to greater depth because the people who became involved could see how deep it was possible to go. The adults involved believed in what the students were capable of.
Really, our job is to create the conditions for that type of learning to become more and more likely.
It’s that time of year in primary schools again – the time for mixing up the classes and making new ones for next year. I have some thoughts about this.
My first thought is that mixing the classes up every year should not be the default. This is particularly true in international schools where students have very little continuity in their lives anyway. Friends are constantly coming and going, being made and lost. These children, generally, have little bond with their extended families – cousins and so on. Their little lives are in a constant state of flux. In a way, our schools owe it to them to provide a little bit of continuity. Instead, we pull the rug from under their feet and force them to go through the painstaking process of making friends all over again. Even as we speak, my daughter is being separated from her closest friends – for the third year in a row. Just doesn’t seem right, really, does it?
My second thought is an indicator of a bigger problem – friendship within and across classes. Whether we say it is a major factor in the creation of classes or not, to our students the issue of which class their friends are in is HUGE. Each year, we see close friendships break down when students are placed in separate classes. After a while, new friendships are formed with students in the same class. The fact of the matter is – being in the same class seems to be the key factor in the sustainability of friendships in schools. This is an indicator of some very serious problems:
- Classes become silos in which students have few opportunities to interact with and learn with students from other classes.
- Play opportunities may be too rare, infrequent and brief to allow for those times to create the conditions for rich friendships beyond just the ones that exist in the classroom.
- Our students’ lives outside of school clearly become equally scheduled and compartmentalized as “play-dates” (God, I hate that term) are based more and more on students who are in the same class and who parents deem to be acceptable friends.
If schools are going to grow beyond their current state – the need for which so many of us are in agreement about – we need to take a long, hard look at this class-creating habit we have developed. It may be way more damaging and counter-productive than we think.
We also need to look at what our timetables say about how much we value play and the social connections and relationships that could be evolving in so many rich ways if we allow more time.
Perhaps we also need to work with parents in order to attempt to break down this “play-date” culture which converts what should be healthy, spontaneous play with whoever happens to be around to adult-manipulated, scheduled “dates” with carefully selected children.
What does your school do?
Is there an approach that you feel is right?